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Kevin Pietersen’s sharp warning about Test cricket’s future must rattle cricket administrators

Pietersen’s words demand an address. Just mindless expansion of the game in the shorter formats wouldn’t help in the final count if Test cricket loses its base and participation.

Kevin Pietersen
Kevin Pietersen. (Photo by Mark Kolbe/Getty Images)

Former England captain Kevin Pietersen has sounded a warning. In a tweet posted a few days ago, the charismatic former player said that 10 years down the line, only five teams will play Test cricket on this planet while the rest will only play the white-ball variant.

The 37-year-old South Africa-born cricketer’s viewpoint is not something completely new. Players across the world have expressed a concern time and again over the future of Test cricket and felt the sliding bowling standard has put the traditional form under threat. It’s just that Pietersen has put it more sharply and if his warning fails to rattle the administrators, Test cricket could well be on the way to oblivion.

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Not easy to revive interest in Test but the effort should be on

There is no doubt that the project to revive interest in Test cricket is mammoth but there must be a minimum effort to try to save the oldest format from dying. Pietersen still has listed five teams that would play Test cricket after 10 years. In reality, that list could shrink even further and Test cricket could ultimately be confined to England and Australia – the two oldest cricket teams in the world. How not to see such a time?

The problem is that Test cricket finds itself at odds in the marriage between cricket and commercialisation. The format is called Test because it is the real test of the cricketers’ character. One needs high-quality technique and skills – be it in batting, bowling and fielding — to achieve success in Test cricket and there is no shortcut to success.

But cricket’s commercialisation preaches a philosophy which advises the exact opposite. To cater to the times and geography, the administrators need to make cricket more entertaining than a technical display and this has led to a horizontal expansion of the game at the expense of killing its vertical depth. And being the format which deals with the vertical depth the most, it is Test cricket that is proving to be the final casualty.

Accommodating Test cricket with a short-term business mind is difficult

Test cricket’s challenge lies in its accommodation. The cricket administrators and boards though theoretically seek a resurgence of Test cricket, they cannot overlook the short-term business gains that the shorter formats, especially T20, generate. The result lies in addition of more and more shorter games and a threat to Test cricket’s existence. The calendar year is now congested with not just international T20s but even those that are regularly played in cricket-playing nations across the globe. It’s nothing but cannibalising of cricket and Test cricket has no hope of survival amid such insanity.

Pietersen has placed India as one of the teams that would still play Test after a decade but one wouldn’t be surprised if they don’t. India is a team which clearly prioritises its preference of the format now (a few years ago, they lost a Test match in four days and the then captain MS Dhoni had said that his team got a break), especially after the T20 World Cup victory in 2007 and given India’s problems with batting techniques abroad, the support for Test cricket could deteriorate further.

Without quality, even a world championship in Tests won’t be enough

For some, Test cricket needs a world championship to survive the test of times. The idea is not entirely out of place. Starting a world championship would import the much-needed competitive spirit that the format needs at this hour but the question is: With such massive gap between the quality of good and ordinary teams, will even a championship make any difference?

The decision to increase the number of teams in Tests will hurt the format more because as it has been said, Test cricket requires the right skills. Bangladesh have won just 10 Tests since they were admitted to the club more than 17 years ago. Zimbabwe can be bowled out thrice in five days by a lethal opposition.

The West Indies, the rulers of world cricket once, won their last away series against a good team way back in 1994 and even their last win against a team apart from Bangladesh and Zimbabwe came in 2012. Sri Lanka are struggling with the longest format while the Kiwis are happier slam-banging the ball in the T20s.

South Africa, despite their recent series win over India, are not the same bowling side they once were. A world championship will see more one-sided games over a long period of time and eventually do nothing for Test cricket’s betterment.

Little quality, little interest, losing venture

Test cricket’s woes come in a vicious cycle. Lack of quality draws less audience and that leads to low revenue making Test cricket a losing venture. The International Cricket Council needs to join hands with all boards to put in place to financially safeguard Test cricket first. The call for four-day Tests to reduce the financial burden or day-night Tests to increase interest is more about making cosmetic changes.

The criteria for playing Tests should be strictly laid so that the skill levels do not get diluted and cricket boards around the world struggle financially to stage the five-day format.

Test cricket has a major challenge as it is not in tune with the current times. But its anachronism can’t be allowed to eclipse the beautiful format permanently. The cricket brains must understand the need to accommodate Test cricket and not just providing it with mere lip service of betterment. The recurrent occurrences of Tests being staged on ordinary pitches must be stopped if we want to see the longest format survive. A strict penalty should be imposed on countries that prepare horrible pitches for Test cricket to make up for the shortage of skills to win a game.

Don’t admit countries playing shorter formats directly into Test arena

The international cricket body also needs to create a buffer when it comes to new teams making a debut. A team which has done well in the limited format shouldn’t be given an access to Test cricket within a few years. There must be four-day formats in between that these new teams need to master before appearing in the five-day format. The prevalent idea is about reducing Test matches to four days. Instead, make aspiring teams play four-day games before making their Test debut. That way, their skills and temperament can be judged without affecting actual Test cricket. Even if required, help the grassroots cricket in countries to take special care to spot and train talents with Test-playing capacity.

The concern is that even cricketing powerhouses like India, Australia and the West Indies have made themselves busy with slam-bang T20 cricket. This only reduces the possibility of the emergence of players who are capable of delivering in multiple-day formats. Eventually, that doesn’t augur well for Test cricket.

Pietersen’s words demand an address. Just mindless expansion of the game in the shorter formats wouldn’t help in the final count if Test cricket loses its base and participation. Cricket had originated with Test cricket and only its distorted formats can’t ensure it a stable and safe future. It’s an irony that when more and more countries are aspiring to play the game, a former great is cautioning about its shrinking future.

Time is running out. Action is required.

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